A Foreign Service Officer's Critique Gets Louder

Peter Van Buren is taking his gripe with the State Department even more public.

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We wrote Wednesday about beleaguered State Department employee Peter Van Buren's escalating attacks on his employer. Van Buren, a mid-level foreign service officer, wrote a book this year critical of the Iraqi reconstruction work he had participated in for the department, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. On Tuesday, he said the Department was investigating and threatening to terminate him for linking on his personal blog to documents first made available by WikiLeaks. Van Buren alleged the investigation was an attempt at retribution for the book. The State Department, for its part, isn't matching Van Buren's public criticisms with their own. "Regarding Mr. Van Buren, we do not discuss individual personnel matters," a State Department spokesman said in a statement to The Atlantic Wire today.

Since Tuesday, Van Buren has doubled down on his criticisms of the State Department's reconstruction efforts and their decision to investigate him, finding even more public venues to express his dissatisfaction. Yesterday, he published an item on Foreign Policy's web site listing some of the more ludicrous and misguided expenditures the State Department approved to "win the hearts and minds" of Iraqis. For instance, in the face of deep-seated tribal divisions, the department spent $22,500, Van Buren says, to stage an allegorical play about donkeys that would teach Iraqi audience members to put aside minor differences. "The production was staged at least once to my knowledge, with some coerced locals in reluctant attendance; political reconciliation did not spontaneously flower."

In today's New York Times, Van Buren published an op-ed once again acerbically condemning the State Department's efforts in Iraq. He wrote:

One Iraqi I met observed that the United States had sponsored expensive art shows in his neighborhood three years in a row, but did nothing about the lack of functioning sewers, electricity and running water. "It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head," he told me. "Everyone comes in and puts ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked."

The State Department's statement to The Atlantic Wire did defend their policy of investigating information that is potentially "improperly disclosed", presumably in response to Van Buren's assertion that they are unfairly targeting him alone for linking to the WikiLeaks materials and publishing critical opinions on his blog.

The Department of State has an obligation to try to ensure that official information is released in an authorized and appropriate manner, that classified and other protected material is not improperly disclosed, and that the views an employee expresses in his or her private capacity are not improperly attributed to the U.S. government.  Foreign Service Officers and other employees know that they are expected to adhere to the rules associated with meeting these obligations.
All Department employees who write for publication in their private capacity on matters of official concern are required to have their work reviewed by the Department in compliance with longstanding clearance requirements and procedures set forth in the Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual.  

The State Department has said something similar to Van Buren, The Atlantic Wire's Uri Friedman reported Wednesday, and Van Buren posted a rebuttal to their argument.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.